Dr. Lee, the Healthy Professor

Do You Need A Protein Supplement?

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There is no denying that protein is a vitally important nutrient for general health and hundreds of specific functions in the body.

Protein is one of the primary nutrients involved in growth, development and repair of virtually all tissues in the body. In some cases, such as extreme endurance exercise, protein can also serve as an important source of energy, particularly when energy stores of carbohydrates in muscle and liver become exhausted. Following strenuous exercise, protein supplements help speed repair and regeneration of damaged tissues by providing an additional source of amino acids.

There is very good evidence that protein needs are elevated by exercise training, infection and other periods of acute and chronic stress. Some of the best evidence comes from studies of competitive athletes, in whom protein needs are nearly doubled during periods of intense training and competition.

For athletes who also need to replenish bodily stores of carbohydrates and fluids in addition to protein, a post-exercise recovery drink is often the most convenient and effective form of supplement.

There are on the other hand reports of low protein diets weaken the immune system, increase the chances of yeast infection, and slow the ability to recover from injury. Dr. William Evans of Penn State University has written that any person who eats only the minimum protein could find them selves protein deficient after a bout of moderate exercise or during a physically demanding job.

Dr. Vernon Young of MIT University has published research that supports the position that we should be eating two to three times more protein than current recommendations.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently reported that women who ate 24% or more of their calories from protein experienced significantly fewer heart and cardiovascular problems. In another report from the Journal Cancer, it was shown that women on high protein diets experienced better breast cancer survival rates.

According to DR. Boyd Eaton, a specialist in Paleolithic diets, 30% of the primitive diet was protein. This level would be consistent with the recommendations of MIT professor Young ‑ mentioned above

What are protein supplements supposed to do?

Step into any health-food store or “Google”  ‘protein supplements’ and you're likely to see stacks or pages of protein-packed powders, shakes and bars, often accompanied by pictures of people with athletic bodies. Of course the implied message is that using these products is the only way to achieve a more muscular or athletic body.

Do protein supplements help build muscle and strength?

Although it is important for athletes to get an adequate amount of protein, consuming additional amounts of protein does not appear to promote muscle growth. Muscle growth is dependent on both exercise intensity and adequate protein supplies. You also only need 15 – 20 grams per serving in supplement form. There is evidence that 35 grams / serving is the upper limit of digestion / absorption. So be wary of the large tubs promoting 50+ gram servings.

What are the types of Protein Supplements?

Protein supplements fall into 4 main categories

  • Protein supplement – usually from a Whey, Soy or Egg base and low in carbohydrates (no added nutrients are allowed) and offering 14 to 30 grams of protein per serving. Note: the higher the protein concentration the more likely you are to find artificial colour and flavour because concentrated protein tastes terrible.
  • Meal Replacement powders – these are controlled by Health Canada and the nutrition deck will included vitamins and minerals, usually at the level of 1/3 the recommended daily value (representing one of three meals)
  • Recovery drinks – these are based on the research that following intense exercise, recovery of glycogen and muscle repair is optimized when the carbohydrate to protein ratio is approximately 3 to 1.
  • “Energy” bars and that usually means sugars or carbohydrates but they can also appear as Meal replacements or protein bars. 

Are protein supplements dangerous?

Protein supplements are usually not dangerous (except maybe to the wallet) for several reasons. They are fundamentally nothing more than concentrated food packaged in attractive and tasty combinations. There have been some alleged cases, in the world of drug testing of high performance athletes, of “cross contamination” with steroids produced in the same factories but none of these have been with Canadian produced products. Also, because protein tends to curb the appetite, it is difficult to consume too much protein without forcing the issue.

Who Needs Protein Supplements?

Theoretically, nobody really needs a protein supplement, if they eat a complete protein adequate diet However that is a big “if”.  In an ideal life style one should be able to get all the protein they need from their diet. Unfortunately, hurried life styles and a desire to curb calories will create a need for a supplement.  I emphasize the word “supplement” as opposed to “substitute”.

The advantages of a good supplement are:

  • A convenient and safe source of protein.
  • An easily and quickly digested form of protein
  • A good ratio of protein grams to Calories.

Are there caveats to choosing a protein supplement?

The caveats to supplement choice deal with quality and source of protein.

Four quick references here are:

Protein BLEND

Usually among the first words you'll see. Companies use the term, as opposed to just citing the various proteins individually, to get around rules that require ingredients be listed in the order of quantity thus reducing the risk of a sugar appearing first. The exotic names ("Metamyosyn",  "AminoPlex," etc.) often given to these blends are mostly “creative writing”.


This usually refers to a protein supplement source that has been concentrated through high heat drying (dehydration), acid extraction or filtration to reduce the original source to a more concentrated protein commodity. This is the least expensive method of protein extraction but unfortunately other things like lactose, fat and some impurities are also concentrated with it. It is usually 60 - 70 percent protein by dry weight.


Isolates are created through an alcohol wash or a water wash or some ionization concentration techniques. The objective is to separate the carbohydrates and fats from the protein. The alcohol method is the least expensive and the ionization technique is the most expensive method.  The concentrate or should I say isolate is them filtered to further purify the protein fraction. In the case of soy protein isolates, the alcohol version will be devoid of the now famous "isoflavones" which are the "phytochemicals" on soy responsible for many of the "good" things attributed to soy. Isolates are usually 90 - 95 percent protein and the best will be water extracted.

Hydrolyzed Protein

Hydrolyzed or hydrolyses is a method of adding water to protein molecules to help break (lyses) them into smaller parts called peptides. My sources indicate that this method is the most expensive approach to concentrating proteins and rarely appears as the first ingredient on a protein supplement label.  A second issue is that unless you are very ill (hospitalized and on venous drip) or you have a very challenged digestive system, there will be little benefit to this more expensive version.

My take on this is as follows:

Because the word protein means - “to comes first”, we need between 0.75 gm and 1.0 gm per pound of desirable weight.

  • eat protein in every meal and every snack and make it 30% of your calories.
  • Never eat more than 35 grams of protein in a single sitting, that's all you can absorb.
  • as physical activity or stress increase our protein requirements increase.
  • remember that protein controls appetite and
  • eat some of your protein selection first in every case to control the rate of rise in blood sugar. This will avoid hypoglycemic reactions and spikes of insulin production.

Further Reading

Daily Protein Requirements
Protein is the Answer
Sports Drink Science
Sports Drinks Review
Benefits of Soy Protein
Soy and Your Health: An Update on the Benefits
Soy and Your Health: Dispelling the Myths
Protein Supplement - low-fat, non-GMO (non-genetically modified organism), biologically complete protein contains all 20 amino acids used in human metabolism, including the nine essential ones.